It’s only once every four years that the Green Bay Packers play teams from the AFC East, and a great deal has changed since the team’s most recent meeting against the Buffalo Bills. That game, a 22-0 Packers win, saw Josh Allen make just his third start, and he looked very much like an out-of-his-element rookie quarterback.
But now? Allen is the odds-on favorite to win the NFL MVP award this year, getting almost even money. It’s not hard to see why, either — he has led his team to a 5-1 record to start the season, he is hanging right with Patrick Mahomes in most passing categories, and he remains arguably his team’s most significant rushing threat.
So how did this happen?
We asked that question and a handful of others to Matt Byham, one of the writers for our fellow SB Nation site Buffalo Rumblings, to try to understand how Allen has become one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. In this week’s Q&A, we also take a look at an unusual method to build a receiving corps as well as how the Bills might line up defensively against the Packers’ struggling offense.
Check out our exchange below and head over to Buffalo Rumblings as well to get fully up-to-date on the Bills before this week’s matchup on Sunday Night Football.
APC: This is a very different Josh Allen than the one who lost 22-0 at Lambeau Field in 2018 in his third career start. Who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for his dramatic development from a QB who looked lost early on as a rookie to the one who is tearing up the NFL in 2022?
No one person is wholly responsible for Allen’s meteoric ascendance. Certainly, former offensive coordinator Brian Daboll deserves credit, having been a part of Allen’s initial rise and development. But you can’t discount new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey in this conversation. He may get Allen even more than Daboll did while in Buffalo, given Dorsey was once a highly touted quarterback at Miami and is himself a former NFL QB. Dorsey seems to put more of the game in Allen’s hands, and we’re seeing a lot less from the running game—both by the running backs and even Allen.
But the lion’s share of credit must go to one Joshua Patrick Allen. His rise from a low-floor, high-ceiling project QB to one of the NFL’s best is due to Allen’s work ethic and intelligence. Through it all, he remains humble when and where it counts, and he doesn’t ever seem to take things too seriously, which allows Allen to play looser in key situations. The scary part? He hasn’t reached his ceiling yet—he has much to learn and further refine.
APC: Packers fans are familiar with Stefon Diggs from his time in Minnesota and Jake Kumerow from before Aaron Rodgers lost his mind. Can you give us a quick primer on the rest of the Bills’ receiving unit and how Buffalo tends to deploy Allen’s weapons?
Interestingly, none of the Bills’ starting wide receivers were drafted before the fourth round. Third-year man Gabe Davis (4th Rd) is a can opener at WR2, taking the top off defenses at will. His ability to stretch the field is lethal, and he can quickly rack up a 100-spot on any team off only two or three catches. Slot man Isaiah McKenzie (5th Rd) is a jack-of-all-trades wide receiver, who took up the mantle vacated by Cole Beasley. McKenzie is fantastic in spurts, but he’s struggled with drops and injuries throughout the first half of the season. His talent keeps him on the field despite those issues, with the team using him on designed runs and quick screens in addition to his role between the sticks. Khalil Shakir (5th Rd 2022) is a promising rookie who may just be another draft-day steal for Buffalo. He’s essentially been the understudy at slot receiver but, whenever called upon, Shakir has produced well beyond his draft status. Last season was a break-out year for tight end Dawson Knox (an early pick for Buffalo in the 3rd round), similarly to Robert Tonyan. The 2022 season has been a challenging one for Knox, dealing with the loss of his younger brother and injuries that have sidelined him, but he’s always a threat to move the chains and he’s historically a favorite target of Allen’s in the red zone. Watch out for fullback Reggie Gilliam, the most unlikely x-factor as a receiver. Buffalo loves to utilize Gilliam in very untraditional ways.
APC: The Bills defense ranks first in points and yards allowed as well as DVOA. Is there anything they don’t do well? Phrased a bit more seriously, what weaknesses if any exist on that unit that the Packers should try to attack?
If there’s a weakness to exploit, it’s perhaps best found by targeting the youth in Buffalo’s secondary. All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White is still sidelined due to his surgically repaired ACL—an injury that’s cost him time on the field since Thanksgiving 21. Starting in his place has been veteran CB Dane Jackson, with rookies Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford splitting time on the opposite side. Jackson is a savvy vet, but he’s no White—not many are. Surprisingly, Benford—a sixth-round pick out of Villanova—started over Elam to begin the season, and snap shares were nearly equal until Benford broke his wrist in Week 3. Elam then took over starting duties and has shown much of the talent that made him a first-round pick. Benford returned against the Chiefs but was out snapped 3-to-1 by Elam. Benford appears to be a great find as a big, physical ball hawk, but didn’t face a lot of NFL talent in college. Elam possesses elite traits as a very physical corner with incredible 4.39 speed—who should develop into a corner adept when playing on an island. But they’re both rookies being asked to play significant roles, and a quarterback like Rodgers will likely be able to confuse and exploit them in ways they haven’t seen yet.
Compounding the inexperience in the secondary is even more injury devastation at safety. Micah Hyde was lost for the season following a very scary neck injury. He’s since had surgery and the hope is he returns next year, but his presence on the field is missed. Thankfully Jordan Poyer has been playing lights out this season and, when healthy, he’s helped offset the loss of both White and Hyde. Poyer is as good as it gets, and his status in the league is woefully under acknowledged.
APC: The Packers’ offensive line has been shuffling quite a bit over the past few weeks, and matchups between the Packers’ tackles and the Bills’ edge players will be critical on Sunday night — especially depending on whether David Bakhtiari can play. Do Von Miller and Gregory Rousseau typically stick to specific sides or rotate? And how much do the Bills tend to rotate in backups like Shaq Lawson and Boogie Basham?
Defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier does move Miller around the defense a bit, usually to exploit an observed weakness. Though when it comes to Miller, most players show weakness against him. Rousseau has blossomed playing with Miller, for obvious reasons. But the double teams that Miller faces helps free up Rousseau at times. In general, the Bills like to keep their defensive line fresh, and that’s especially true of their pass rushers. Lawson thrives coming off the bench. Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and Lawson both excelled in this defense before they left in free agency. They’re back after disappointing stints elsewhere, and both have picked up right where they left off. This defense is built for them. Basham is coming along nicely, as is A.J. Epenesa, but time will tell if either player is ready to take on full-time roles as edge rushers. In looking at snap counts, there isn’t a tried-and-true method to the way they play anyone on the line.
Each week, numbers seem to show a division based around the opposition’s traits. Some weeks you may see Miller and defensive tackle Ed Oliver near 100%, then others it may be closer to 50%. One of Buffalo’s best traits is their ability to confuse and outlast an offense with the heavy use of rotation to get fresh legs on the field.
APC: This is just the third time in the Aaron Rodgers era that the Packers are double-digit underdogs (the line is currently Bills -11 at DraftKings), but the first time with Rodgers actually healthy and starting. Packers fans aren’t feeling great about the result of this game (or the season as a whole so far), so how are Bills fans feeling about being 10.5-point favorites against Rodgers and company?
To be candid, Bills Mafia is all in right now. No one will ever discount Rodgers so long as he’s able to suit up, but it’s well documented how terrible things are going for the Packers this season. What was once considered a marquee matchup for the league may now encourage people to turn in early for the night. I’m more than just a little unsure Green Bay has the firepower to match Buffalo’s will to win, given the Packers’ recent struggles. But this will be the best defense the Bills have faced, especially the defensive backs. It’s also possible that both teams more fully commit to the run and try to shorten the game. Buffalo has struggled to run for most of the season, but they find ways to move the ball on offense in place of it using short, rhythmic passes to the running backs and inside receivers in space. That was a method they tried to exploit in Miami to counter the extreme heat, shortening the game and unfortunately further limiting their chances on offense.
I’ll close by saying that Rodgers is an incredible quarterback—an all-time HOF player. It’s too bad that, for much of his career (like Brady), he hasn’t had the receiving talent to match. Is it no small coincidence that he won back-to-back MVPs while Davante Adams was in Green Bay? Tom Brady was nearly unstoppable when he finally had a player his own equal catching passes in Randy Moss. Josh Allen’s ascendance has a fair bit to do with the arrival of the nearly impossible to guard Stefon Diggs. I think sometimes even coaches believe the quarterback position transcends the idea of the “1/11th” mentality. That no matter who’s available to them on offense, a generational talent will make those around them better. While true to a point, the other tired refrain is that a team is only as strong as its weakest point.
Thanks to Matt for his great answers! Make sure to head over to Buffalo Rumblings to see the other side of the Q&A as well.